Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Motivation, productivity and aphantasia

Blank page of open notebook with coffee cup stain, on dark wooden desk or table
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Motivation is a matter of sticks and carrots. Obvious, isn’t it? I’ve known this in theory for as long as I can remember but I’ve got within shouting distance of retirement age without feeling it as something which is of any practical importance to the way I live my life. Whatever the “carrot” may be, I can’t see it because of my aphantasia. I suppose that the theory is that you shouldn’t see the stick because it’s behind you and you’re looking forward towards the carrot. Instead, I guess, you’re supposed to be aware of the stick from experience (and perhaps the very occasional backwards glance). So, obviously, I don’t see the stick either. But neither do I imagine it in any clear way. I know that the bad consequences of my actions (or inactions) are out there but they’re for the most part vague and unspecific. It’s easy for me to forget about the stick until it starts to beat me.

I’ve written before about my apparent “disengagement” from my life, my failure to follow through on things (or, as with my doctorate, my long delay in doing so). Since my sessions with the therapist last year, I’ve been putting a lot of this down to anxiety (and to my difficulties in dealing with anxiety because I can’t visualize) but to be honest this hasn’t felt quite right to me. In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking more and more that my problem isn’t anxiety (at least not any more than the next guy’s is) but rather motivation.

Our brains are very good at playing tricks on us. Most of the things we need to do in our daily lives don’t have a tangible reward. We just do them, maybe look around briefly for the applause or affirmation, shrug, and move on to the next item. That gets tedious quickly. So, to keep ourselves at it, we mentally promise ourselves rewards for the successful completion of our tasks: we’ll feel an uplifting sense of achievement, the satisfaction of a job well done, pride in our skill or ingenuity, the temporary and conditional confirmation of our self-image as one of the good guys.

When the job is finished, and there is no immediate payout, we don’t really mind. There’ll be one from the next task. Or if not that, from one in the fairly near future. And on we go. As you might expect, this doesn’t work for me. I haven’t got a self-image, as one of the good guys or otherwise. I can’t picture a future payout, either material or karmic. It might be expected that, some time in the past 40 years, I’d have found a workaround for this problem. I haven’t, and I think that the reason is that it’s only this year that I’ve figured out what the problem is.

I said to the therapist that I thought I’d been trying to use feelings of guilt to motivate myself. That didn’t seem very likely to her and we didn’t pursue the suggestion. But I’ve come back to it and it still feels right to me. As a teenager (and since) I’d look at people who were building businesses and careers, people who were entrepreneurs and “self-starters”, and I’d tell myself that I ought to want, and pursue, what they wanted. I’d try to guilt-trip myself into that mindset. It didn’t work, of course. But instead of learning the lesson and trying something else, I just kept at it, for the simple reason that I couldn’t think of — couldn’t imagine — an alternative. All I accomplished was to get used to feeling guilty a lot of the time.

I’ve written before about my problems with planning, scheduling, prioritization etc. After writing that post, I thought that I should make a greater effort to organize my work with to-do lists and similar productivity tools. And I think I’ve learned something from that experiment, though it’s not something particularly encouraging.

I discovered that to-do lists are not as simple as I’d been assuming. The first step is easy: write down everything I need to do, one item under another. That gives me a list of tasks in the order in which they occurred to me. Now I need to rearrange them into the optimal order in which to do them. That means prioritizing according to three factors: importance, urgency and an estimate of the time each is likely to take. In other words, I need a multivariate sorting algorithm. I don’t suppose you happen to have one? I certainly don’t. The big problem here is the third factor: time. Obviously, it’s difficult to schedule tasks, or estimate when you’re likely to be able to fit them in, if you don’t know how long the tasks before them on the list are likely to take. And that’s something I almost never know.

Let me try to be clearer. There’s a particular task I tend to do a lot. It usually takes an hour and I’ve done it dozens or hundreds of times, so I’ve a pretty good idea of what’s involved. Whenever I’m asked to do it, I allow an hour and that’s usually right. I know how long I need to spend on it. But in my internal, mental schedule (such as it is), that task doesn’t sit neatly in an hour-long slot. I imagine it as an open-ended, indeterminate drain on the time I have available. This has something to do, in ways I don’t really understand, with my inability to visualize: see what Russell Barkley says here about our subjective sense of time. Anyway, it’s my impression is that my productivity has actually got worse since I started to try to use a to-do list regularly. Time to try something else, I think.